After achieving outstanding results in the LIS Masters that she completed while pregnant and toddler-wrangling, a newly-qualified Amber Freeman set about carving out a living in remote South Australia. Three days a week she commuted to her library assistant job at Port Lincoln Library, a 170km round trip from her remote farmhouse set in a sun-drenched canola field.
What was your path to librarianship?
One of my first jobs as a teenager was in my local library in Wagga – I walked there after school most afternoons, and the library manager must have thought ‘well, you’re here anyway – wanna shelve some books?’
It was literally just shelving, but the manager was so flexible and supportive – he paid me $20 an hour (massive money when my previous job was for $4.07!), let me work my weekly three hours whenever it suited me, and said from the outset ‘if you find a good book while you’re shelving, make sure you take a look at it!’
After graduating from CSU with my BA via distance ed, I had a brief existential crisis and realised my employability as a writer would likely leave me saying ‘do you want fries with that’ more often than not. Reflecting on all the jobs I’d had, I realised that the Wagga library shelving job was the only work I’ve done that I’d actually enjoyed. So I sighed with relief as it dawned on me… librarian! Duh!
Where did you do your library qualifications and when did you graduate?
It felt natural to stick with CSU after completing my undergrad there – I was already familiar with the online learning environment and the application process was streamlined. As I went back to study when my first daughter was 6 months old, these things were pretty important for setting myself up for success as a new mum doing DE! I’m just fortunate that the CSU MIS program is one of the best in the country. I graduated in 2016, 6 weeks before my second daughter was born – it was a race to the finish line!
Where are you currently working?
After doing my work placement at the Port Lincoln Library I was offered a temporary 3 month position as a library assistant, and I was asked back after my daughter Sage was born, so I’ve been there for three years!
What does a standard day look like for you?
In a community library, every day is different – just the way we like it! I am fortunate enough to host Storytime, and I’ve recently added a Baby Rhymetime to our children’s programs, so three mornings a week I get to sing for my supper and do some dramatic book readings! I love a good Storytime theme, so I spend a little time prepping an age-appropriate set of books and craft each week. As I’m the only qualified staff member I get to do all the original cataloguing too, which is usually just the bespoke self-published books that get donated or locally purchased.
I also help run tech-savvy classes for seniors, and much of my day is spent helping people navigate their way through using their own devices, public PCs, printing and scanning. The digital divide is quite frightening to witness first-hand, so it’s nice to have some small role in helping locals bridge the divide and gain some tech confidence! I’m not employed as an actual librarian, so I still do lots of the shelving, cleaning and library maintenance side of things too – there’s always plenty to do!
What is it that you love most about your job or librarianship in general?
The kids! And the people in general. I think of public library work as a type of community service – sometimes you’re the only person that sweet elderly gentleman speaks to today. You’re the last vestige of hope for someone submitting a work cover claim, or getting in contact with their family overseas. Make it count.
A regular patron came in a few weeks ago – he’s usually quiet and keeps to himself. He made a point of coming over and saying to me ‘it’s a big one for me next week. I’m eighty’. I knew he wouldn’t mention it if he had a big supportive family or friendship network. I knew he was mentioning it because he’s lonely, and will most likely spend it alone. So we made a lovely card for him and left it on the holds shelf for his next visit. He’s thanked us all twice now. Make it count.
What is the most challenging thing about your job?
Hmm… maintaining patience with difficult customers, and not letting my passion dissolve in the face of budgetary or managerial restrictions.
Do you have any advice for students and new graduates forging their careers in librarianship, particularly those doing it in regional areas?
Connect with and maintain friendships with others in the industry, especially those at your stage of the game. We are so fortunate to have a very passionate and dynamic online presence as a profession, both in Australia and internationally, and being involved in a small way helps you remain mindful of the bigger picture. Don’t lose hope if the local job market is limited or non-existent, remote work is becoming an increasingly viable option, and we just don’t know what the future holds! Positivity, passion, and taking a ‘forever student’ stance is going to serve us all well, at any stage of our careers.
How do you balance library work with your side hustles?
I don’t! It’s all a juggling act, and I just don’t spend the time I want on developing the skills and products that I’d like to have out in the world! But that’s okay too – active parenting and my day job take precedence at this stage of my life, but it’s just a season, and as the girls get older I’ll have more time. We recently moved much closer to work, so I’ve gained about an hour and a half back in my day already! I think the concept of balance is unattainable for working parents of young children – something always has to suffer. I guess it’s more about picking your battles and prioritising study or creating or work if it aligns with your values, but it’s always a process, and I definitely don’t have the solution!
Do you have any advice on learnable/developable skills that new graduates and students can develop to really stand out?
I think coding and design work are the two big ones. The more you know about technology the better. Stay up to date, learn operational basics of most devices you’re going to be exposed to in your workplace, and build on it from there. You’re going to be an absolute asset to a library if you can troubleshoot IT issues yourself without having to call up IT every five minutes!
Can you tell me about one of your first interviews for library roles? How did they go? Any advice?
Oh gosh, interviewing is hard! I think I was lucky because I interviewed for a role that was sort of being created for me, so I just needed to make sure I didn’t swear or spill coffee on myself! No seriously, I think getting over the jitters is the hardest part, so that you can remember that you’re confident because you have put the work into your education and self-development. I guess I am lucky to have worked in customer service for many years, so I can talk the leg off a chair. Getting confident having intelligent, focussed conversations is the best advice I can offer.
I read an interesting article about a woman who contacted over a thousand professionals in a variety of fields and invited them to lunch, just for the opportunity to have deeper, intelligent conversations with a wide range of high achievers. As English is her second language, this has helped immensely to increase her conversational English and confidence – I think we could all benefit from less typing and more face-to-face intelligent discussions!